The long tail of Anglo-British Nationalism which erupted into consciousness in 2017 seemed to come out of nowhere. But the signs were visible for a long time.
A sense of national decline (‘forty years of hurt’), identity collapse, economic uncertainty, military ridicule and a political leadership unable to innovate so increasingly reliant on Blame Culture Politics have combined to form a fatal narrative of decline and decay. Central to this is a myth-making about a Great and Exceptional and Glorious past, from which ‘we’, the English/Anglo-British/British have all tragically fallen.
As the true nature of the key body lobbying for the Union in Scotland is exposed, this notion of a collective British self with somehow common interests is blown away. But the emergence of English identity, forms and aspirations is only one part of the equation. The other is the explicit denial or contempt towards the other constituent parts of the ‘partnership of equals’.
Back in 2009 the Economist ran a piece by their ‘Bagehot’ character. Now the Economist editors have form on this with their Skintland mapping and regular trolling. They seem to combine super-serious economics with casual xenophobia. He asked, comparing Tim Henman and Andy Murray: “Which Scots are good Scots?”
“…And Tim, of course, was English. Very English. His manners, his parents and his partner were all egregiously English. Andy, on the other hand, is Scottish. Extremely Scottish.
But being Scottish is not always a barrier to being loved south of the border. Look at Susan Boyle, the unlikely talent-show star. She is Scottish, but somehow in a good way: plain but passionate; modest but impressive. On the other hand, consider that other unloved Scot, Gordon Brown. For many English people, he seems to invoke all the wrong sort of Scottish associations: dour, unreliable with money, clannish. Mr Murray, I suspect, with his unsmiling demeanour, is in this category too.
But what exactly is it that distinguishes a palatable Scot from an offputting one? Accent? Deracination? Is it their avowed or assumed attitude to the union or the Barnett formula? Their threateningness? Their challenge or conformity to Celtic stereotypes? Their gender?
I suppose the absence of passion might just be something to do with the fact that Mr Murray really is very good at tennis. To be that good at anything is, to some English tastes, frankly a little vulgar.”
Now this is of course just the sort of attitude that drips through much of English political discourse and it’s been joined more recently with virulently anti-Irish rhetoric as the harsh reality of the self-inflicted Brexit shambles hits home.
You could, and probably should, just ignore this drivel, rather than dredge it up from the murky past of some unimportant publications unfunny diarist. But the trajectory away from an (always dubious) notion of an inclusive outward-looking ‘Britishness’ to a more toxic Englishness is worth charting.
It’s a new form that is oddly restrained. There is of course no real movement for an English Parliament, nor other institutions. They no more wanted to ‘take back control’ than they believe in ‘sovereignty’. There is of course very good reason for this. There is no need and no motivation. So you have this odd beast of a new Nationalism that wants, instead of its own self-expression or self-determination, to restrain, possess and control others.
English nationalism doesn’t want England, it wants Britain.
This may become increasingly uncomfortable to the semi-trained Brit-Scots who defend the current arrangements faithfully and who cling to the wreckage not of Empire but of some sort of progressive Britain, we could all name them.
As the Scotland in Union revelations spill into the public domain – the reality of the political forces holding Britain together being a mixture of feudal power and the violence of finance capitalism is laid open.
Independence activists will have to face this.
This ‘revelation’ about the true nature of the battle at hand has many facets.
As Scott Nelson writes:
“The Tory supporters defending Toby Young for labelling disabled students as “functionally illiterate troglodytes” and working class students as “small and vaguely deformed” are the same pieces of shit who defend the Tories for laughing and braying during parliamentary debates.”
It’s not gone unnoticed by Mhairi Black in her first experience of Westminster.
The shocking appointment of Toby Young makes sense though. This is a system that shouts about meritocracy and fetishises ‘hard work’, but also awards corporate failure and creates a cushion for its rich and feckless.
As ‘Bagehot’ put it: “To be that good at anything is, to some English tastes, frankly a little vulgar.”
If you’re in any doubt of the truth of this, just watch David Davis.
He doesn’t care that he’s useless because… because England… because Britain.
Bagehot isn’t isolated, this is’t unusual. Read Jeremy Clarkson calling Gordon Brown a cunt, or Richard Litttlejohn, Rod Liddle, Katie Hopkins or Kelvin Mackenzie comparing Ross Barkley to a Gorilla or a hundred other pint-sized pundits gobbing up nationalist bigotry day in day out.
And so we come to today’s Guardian trying desperately to play catch-up with our constitutional crisis.
The editorial writes:
“Mrs May always refers, for example, to the Belfast agreement of 1998, which is the Northern Irish unionist term for what nationalists (and New Labour) always called the Good Friday agreement. Perhaps that is why she, and many Brexiters, misunderstand so badly how it changed the nature of sovereignty in Northern Ireland.
Yet the most common and most revealing, because most insulting, misuse of language remains the elision in the conservative English mind between England, Britain and the UK. When the Daily Mail ran its angry pro-Brexit front page during the referendum campaign, it was headlined “Who will speak for England?”. Buried away inside the paper was a clarification of sorts: “By England … we mean the whole of the United Kingdom.” As Mr Barnett puts it, England-Britain is a “post-empire hybrid … English within and British without”. The English aspect is often whimsical and pastoral; the British aspect exterior-facing and imposing. “The sweet and the violent are attached.”
To which you could respond with an enthusiatic ‘tick’ or aslow-hand clap, depending on how far your hangover had subsided. But the paper concludes:
“…there are many things that form part of the answer that can be begun, often in quite small grassroots ways as opposed to grand Napoleonic ones. These Islands, a group that launched in 2017, is one promising approach, based on the crucial recognition that this is an issue that civil society should engage and reason with across borders. But big things will need doing too, in particular by grasping the nettle of England’s needs for its own forms of self-determination and recognition within the larger UK whole. The departure of parliament from Westminster, if it happens, also offers a huge opportunity to rethink the nature of the second chamber along more federal lines. London-based media and other professions need to think with fresh minds too. The turn of the year should be a moment of collective resolution to examine whether and how our union of nations can be renewed most richly.”
The problem of course, is that having read the Scotland in Union spreadsheets the facts stand in opposition to this strange liberal vision.
Parliament is not leaving London.
The second chamber is not being ‘re-thought’ on ‘more federal lines’. That doesn’t even mean anything.
“London-based media and other professions need to think with fresh minds too” is the sort of vacuous empty utterance just perfect for well-meaning New Years Day self-deception.
“The main problem is a variation on an old one: if the English people don’t make their voices heard, the establishment will do it on their behalf…. That is a given constant in English social life: the voice of power will always make itself heard through the mainstream media, even –especially- when it has nothing fresh or interesting to say. And they will always assume to speak for England, but of course they don’t, they only speak for themselves. The ideological battle for Britain is over.”
The problem is not that Scottish nationalism doesn’t have a trajectory. The problem is that English nationalism doesn’t have one.